As I write this review every year the more recent programmes tend to have unfair advantage.
And so The Crown (Netflix) gets first mention this year. I reviewed two particularly good episodes from Season 3 (November) in a recent column – the ones that focused on the Aberfan disaster and Sr Alice, Prince Philip’s mother and later a nun. Faith themes were picked up again in Episode 7, ‘Moondust’ which explored Philip’s religious life in more detail, and tied his faith development into his obsession with the 1969 moon landings.
His private audience with his moon walking heroes (different planets, almost literally!) contrasted with his heartfelt opening of heart and mind with a group of troubled clergymen in a retreat house he supported. Rarely has religion been treated so seriously and maturely in a TV drama.
Another drama that featured religion quite regularly was The Kids Are Alright (RTÉ 2) where an adult narrator recalled events from his past, growing up in a Catholic family in the US in the 1970’s. I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it funny and touching. It helped that it didn’t have a laugh track, and that all the characters were so believable, if exaggerated. Was it looking back fondly or was it more jaundiced?
Of all the regular programmes Leap of Faith (RTÉ Radio 1) with Michael Comyn continues to maintain a high standard”
There were plenty of jibes at the Church and some predictable Catholic stereotypes, but perhaps of the type that comes from people who are sticking to the faith despite the flaws of the flock.
Also making an impression on the drama front, last January, was a new BBC production of Les Misérables where religion was also treated positively and themes of justice, forgiveness and redemption were prominent, though there was some brief but unnecessary ‘adult’ content.
Dark Money impressed in July – a story about the abuse of a child actor in Hollywood and the destructive consequences for the child and his family.
Also in January RTÉ’s War of Independence drama Resistance was better than I expected, despite some lazy stereotyping of nuns.
A new series of Derry Girls (Channel 4) started in March, and while it was undeniably funny, it was marred by gratuitous foul language and over-the-top irreverence. One scene became iconic – where the priest on a cross-community youth retreat tried to get the youngsters to outline what Catholics and Protestants had in common, but all they could come up with were differences.
Good Omens (Amazon Prime Video) was a curious adaptation of a book by Terry Pratchet and Neil Gaiman, with uneasily comical struggles between the forces of good and evil, with humanity seen as caught in the middle. It was intriguing though it could have been more religiously literate.
RTÉ featured several worthwhile documentaries during the year. In January the one-off documentary Pope Francis in Ireland – Behind the Scenes was a useful recap on the previous summer’s papal visit.
In March Guns and Rosaries was an excellent documentary about Fr Patrick Peyton, the Irish ‘Rosary Priest’ who enlisted the help of various Hollywood celebrities – different times!
Divorcing God, in June, was comedian Oliver Callan’s look at the Church in Ireland, interesting, not hostile, but could have been more unpredictable and incisive.
In Father Delaney: Silent Witness (RTÉ 1, November), Joe Duffy presented a fascinating documentary about the cine films of Irish life taken by Fr Jack Delaney, from the 1930s on. Even better, shown in early November, was his film Children of the Troubles, a sad and moving programme about the children killed during the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland.
BBC had its share of fine documentaries – in March BBC2 Northern Ireland had a very impressive series Oilithreacht, about young people taking on the Lough Derg pilgrimage – their faith and enthusiasm was inspiring.
In April, Pilgrimage: Road to Rome (BBC2) had various celebrities walking to Rome and reflecting on their faith or lack of it. Though irritating at times there were inspiring moments and a moving meeting with Pope Francis at the end.
Fern Britton’s Holy Land Journey followed a similar path and gave insights into modern Jerusalem.
Our Dementia Choir, with actress Vicky McClure was an emotional exploration of the power of music.
In September, Inside the Vatican on BBC2 was an impressive, very human and insightful look behind the scenes of day to day life in the Vatican, including Pope Francis’ visit to Ireland.
Eugenics: Science’s Greatest Scandal (BBC4) was one of October’s scariest programmes, tracing the history of eugenics and showing how the arrogant underlying attitudes are still very much alive today.
January saw the introduction of liberal abortion legislation into Ireland. The programmes that covered it then and still have largely failed to ask any hard questions of those who promote this unjust and cruel practice.
Pro-life voices are sidelined as pro-choicers continue to get a free pass with easy interviews and if they are pushed by interviewers it’s usually politicians being pressed on why they aren’t introducing more liberal laws.
By May we were hearing about the ‘abortion of a baby that did not have a fatal abnormality’ on Today With Seán O’Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1). The media outrage ranged from muted to non-existent.
In July, Panorama (BBC1 did a special on the abortion controversy in the US and by usual standards it was reasonably balanced, though generally on BBC I find interviewers favouring the pro-choice side. No mainstream debate I heard during the UK General Election challenged the parties on their abortion policies which were very extreme in some cases.
In August, a new Frontline documentary The Abortion Divide on PBS America was reasonably fair, food for thought for the viewer without strong opinions either way.
The excesses of political correctness became more pervasive during the year, though Prime Time (RTÉ) did have a reasonably balanced programme on transgenderism in January, while Newsnight (BBC) had a robust item in November that asked some hard questions about the issue and highlighted those who de-transition.
Of all the regular programmes Leap of Faith (RTÉ Radio 1) with Michael Comyn continues to maintain a high standard, a programme that promotes reflective discussions and builds bridges in a world becoming more polarised and fractious. I particularly remember a programme last January that highlighted the widespread persecution of Christians around the world, and also flagged to persecution of Muslims in China, nearly a year before this became hot news after a Panorama (BBC) documentary in November.
In February, Comyn featured a reflective discussion on the difficult issue of clerical child abuse, there was an interesting special for St Patrick’s Day and a considered coverage of the massacre of Christians in Sri Lanka in April. More recently I enjoyed his interview with religious affairs journalists Anne Thompson and Inés San Martín.
Life and Soul (RTÉ1 and Radio 1 Extra), launched in July, was an excellent, though occasional, addition to RTÉ’s Sunday morning line up. It replaces Sunday Service though, I’d prefer if it was in addition. That being said it is imaginative and innovative, with a mixture of personal stories of faith, prayers and some fine contemporary Christian music.
Songs of Praise (BBC) continued its long run and among the episodes I liked were specials on St Valentine’s Day, St Mary’s University in Twickenham and Lourdes. Sunday Sequence (BBC Radio Ulster) continued to be one the best religious programmes on radio, with unique insights into the religious life of Northern Ireland and beyond, with frequent contributions from Irish Catholic Managing Editor Michael Kelly.
He was particularly insightful discussing the canonisation of John Henry Newman in October. The Big Questions and Sunday Morning Live (both BBC1) alternated, maintaining high standards on Sunday mornings, with quite a diverse range of opinions.
After initially being doubtful, the regular slot where a comedian and one other reviewed the religious stories of the week grew on me and now I’ll miss it for the winter season.
EWTN News Nightly continued to make a valuable contribution in getting a Catholic perspective on news from around the world and provided a useful balance to the secular media.
In general the EWTN channel is a valuable resource for following papal visits, most recently the trip to Thailand and Japan.
And so, happy new year to all media folks – I hope you will resist the temptation to polarise and offend but that you will provide us with imaginative programmes that will entertain, challenge, inspire and unite.